Meadow Muffins of the Mind

The droppings of some guy's imagination.

2014 NASCAR Alternative Rankings – After Race 8

No, I don’t care about NASCAR.  But the attempts to make the end of the season more compelling amuses me.  Also, I was curious about their points system, which gives a point for 43rd place (starting the engine and driving the car all the way), up to 47 points for first place.  This ended up creating a really minor incentive to win, and with the thrilling celebrations at victory lane, it means the victories were celebrated much more than the actual impact of the win.

NASCAR tried tweaking things yet again … yet this seems to not incentivizing finishing well – while also being very hard to follow.  So, I am experimenting with a system more akin to how open wheel circuits run.  The winner gets 40 points, 2nd place 33, 3rd place 28, then 25 and 22 for the remainder of the Top 5.  20-18-16-14-12 for places 6 thru 10 respectively then one point less for each position down to 1 point for 20th place.  A simple bonus of 4 points is awarded to the driver who led the most laps (and if there is a tie, both drivers get the bonus)  This creates that huge incentive for winning (33% higher than 2nd place if you dominate the race too) while still giving value for strong results.  Using this after Darlington:

  1. Dale Earnhardt Jr (180 pts, 1 win)
  2. Jeff Gordon (147, 0)
  3. Matt Kenseth (141, 0)
  4. Jimmie Johnson (133, 0)
  5. Joey Logano (130, 1)
  6. Kyle Busch (121, 1)
  7. Brad Keselowski (117, 1)
  8. Carl Edwards (117, 1)
  9. Kevin Harvick (114, 2)
  10. Kyle Larson (86, 0)
  11. Tony Stewart (82, 0)
  12. Denny Hamlin (76, 0)
  13. Greg Biffle (74, 0)
  14. Brian Vickers (70, 0)
  15. Kurt Busch (68, 1)
  16. Paul Menard (68, 0)
  17. Ryan Newman (60, 0)
  18. Aric Almirola (59, 0)
  19. Clint Bowyer (58, 0)
  20. Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Austin Dillon, Marcos Ambrose (55, 0)

Siroo

Some restaurants are extraordinary versatile.  The average family restaurant – say, something with pieces of flair for instance – will have something for everybody, with many many dishes and erstaz Mexican, Italian, whatever.  You get American extrusions like Chop Suey or Alfredo – things which do not actually occur in nature (and this is coming from a guy who finds Alfredo all too delightful) – stuff for “everybody”.  Siroo, ain’t that.

Nope, if you hit Siroo in Annandale, you’re pretty obviously getting Korean – stop the presses there.  Moreover, you’re getting dduk, Korean rice porridge, and that’s really it.  Sure, there is a solid bakery, and some fascinating kimchee selections, but the porridge is the clear star.  There are a lot of varieties – vegetable, abalone, kimchee are ones I’ve tried – and they’re really good.  The kimchee has the spice and brininess you want, while all the flavors have that perfect sort of comforting quality that I crave in kongees.  The abalone was not overcooked – just a good textural and flavor accent.

It’s a one trick pony (mostly) – but a hell of a trick.

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

And so, we arrive at the darkest hour.  Albus Dumbledore is dead – and Voldemort has set the Death Eaters free from Azkaban.  Indeed, Dumbledore’s death was at the hand of Harry’s bane, Severus Snape – and he is now on the run.  This is particularly a stomach punch of an ending as for the most part, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is something of a breather after the ridiculous pace and tension of the last two books.  It is, for the most part, much more a companion to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, a largely Voldemort free episode of the saga where we get a lot of useful exposition, but at the expense of a riveting tale.  As these books get longer, this matters: Rowling is asking a lot of our time, and so this was relatively difficult to slog through.  You basically get a spectacular finish to an otherwise unremarkable tome.

Obviously, as we left everybody after the last book – it seems awfully hard to picture returning to Hogwarts.  How do you go back to school when you know that people in rival houses want you dead?  Of course, Harry has had a staredown already with the Malfoys – but certainly Draco starts to obsess him, including a particularly dangerous mistake early on.  He seems to be going off the map frequently – what is he hiding and what is he up to?  Certainly his mother is very worried, as was shown in the first chapter.

But even with this over his head, he has to start working on his upper level classes.  This includes Potions class with the new instructor (no Snape?  Save that one), Professor Slugworth – who provides Harry with an old Potions book.  The text is heavily annotated by the Half Blood Prince, and somehow Harry becomes a potions genius just following these notes.  Curiously the margins also seem to contain some of the darkest magic he has had to work.  Slugworth is a former Slytherin head who seems like a very interested name dropper – Dumbledore brought him in for some specific information he has, but Harry has to figure out how to get it.

Dumbledore is also giving Harry special lessons, and in some ways this is the heart of the year at Hogwarts.  Dumbledore is not teaching Harry skills – but history, the history of Voldemort.  Harry, via the Pensieve, starts to see scenes from Tom Riddle’s childhood.  How did a half-Muggle become the ultimate booster of pureblood wizarding.  How did he get so cold, and what is the pull of Hogwarts?  He and Harry have a lot of parallel history – orphans discovering their powers by accident, displaying special skills that Hogwarts seemed to help really reveal.  But the key lessons start to relate to talismans which Voldemort found valuable, and one in particular which Dumbledore brings Harry along to check out.

And of course, there is the continuing mystery of the relationship between Harry and Snape, which is the real driving human conflict at this point (it has been building such).  Harry is continually convinced of Snape’s evil intention.  Clearly Snape is not at all sympathetic to Harry outwardly – and now as the Defense Against Dark Arts teacher, he is ever more so.  But he is an Order member, and there is a nagging feeling that there is more.  After all, he has been able to kill Harry for so long and has not done so.  Dumbledore still trusts him implicitly.  That said, in the spectacular conclusion to the book as Harry returns to Hogwarts and Dumbledore dies – some very serious questions come up on Snape.  Certainly the other Order members’ trust is strained, and Harry’s own negative suspicions have much more credence.  It is hard not to think that there is still more left.

This stuff is all very interesting of course, but it is just Dumbledore showing Harry about it.  It is a lot of inside baseball, and frankly only of interest if you have been intimately familiar with the series.  Yeah, new people are not going to pick up the series here, but it prevents the book from being a great self contained entertainment, which it really ought to be for its doorstop size.  The book is fine enough and moves the ball forward – and since I’ve read the seventh book, by no means can I say that you should stop the series here or anything.  But while I have a ton to say about the resolution of the series, we could have gotten to where we are now without so much bulk.

Philomena

It is funny how the word “slavery” never seems to come up.  When I treated myself to a couple of reviews or synopses of Stephen Frears’ sobering Philomena, I learn that the title character was “forced to live in a convent” from the IMDB synopsis.  Meanwhile, the critic Susan Wloszczyna noted “traumatic circumstances that caused her to be separated from her child, and the vow of silence about the matter that was forced upon her”.  But neither of these depictions really get to the heart of what the Magdalene Laundries were.  The Laundries, part of a system of Catholic asylums for fallen women, had been operating since the 18th century all around the world.  Now, “fallen” can mean a lot of things, like say getting pregnant without being married.  In any case, the women were sullied now and thrown to these laundries where they were forced into unpaid labor without any freedom to leave.  This is by any functional definition slavery obviously – and it’s a form of slavery that existed in Ireland until as recently as 1996.

Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) was one of these victims.  In flashback, we see her as she is thrown into a convent, forced to give birth to her child without drugs as penance, only to see the baby sold to adoption while she was in choir practice.  Fifty years later, she continues to think about her lost son every day, wondering where he went.  This slavery is deep in her bones, even as an old lady 50 years removed from the original atrocity.  Even when she goes to the Abbey where many of the old nuns live, she still is deferential, not wanting to cause trouble and almost apologetic about imposing.

This conundrum – the combination of deep scarring and still devoutness to the institution that effected it – is hard for Martin Sixsmith to get around.  Sixsmith, we learn, is a former press secretary, and is now back in the journalism world.  He has his Oxford, city slicker sort of superiority well in tow, and he just wants a fuzzy piece to help him pay the bills and keep his editor (Michelle Fairley, neck scar healed) happy.  For him, the rejection of spirituality happened a long time ago, it is hard not to feel annoyed when Philomena gets the runaround at the Abbey.  How did Philomena’s records get lost in the fire, as they explained?  When he visits the bar afterwards, an alternative version of the fire emerges, and suddenly Sixsmith thinks he can help – and even better, that help would make a hell of a story.

The film at this point settles into a character study as Sixsmith has to ride in cars with the terribly dowdy Philomena as they travel and follow leads, including to the United States, to try to track down the truth about where Philomena’s son has gone.  I won’t spoil the plot much here, as the twists and where the story goes cannot be predicted, and are worth keeping wrapped up.  At the same time, much can be said about the character study at work, and Dench and Coogan are terrific here, in decidedly different work than normal.  For Dench, the head of James Bond’s Secret Service, to play a truly old, eccentric, feeble (well, at least physically) woman is just not the sort of way that I have experienced her.  She is great particularly in scenes like the aforementioned at the Abbey, where you see her inner religious convictions in conflict with the horror levied on her by the Church which instilled the conviction.  Coogan in a non-comic role (he is a co-writer here) captures Martin’s stiffness when dealing with the old lady – flexing soft skills he largely doesn’t have – and then captures his anger and sense of injustice as things start to develop.

But I go back to the slavery, and the shaming that came with Philomena’s Irish Catholc experience, and it is hard to forget.  It is hard for me to ever fathom how such cruelty can exist, and how so many people looked away.  When I watch Dench’s performance throughout, you see the damage that the Church did to her, and how she has never fully resolved it.  It also makes her triumph particularly acute – even if what she has won is really a chance for some closure.

 

 

 

 

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

One of the pleasures of the last three Harry Potter novels has been the way that JK Rowling has played with the scale of the dimensions of her world.  The last couple of books, the flawed Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkabanand the brilliant Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Rowling has taken Harry Potter from the hero of a children’s book to a kid growing up while discovering the awesome responsibility he has been born into.  Like Frodo, or Luke Skywalker – he has started to see how things fit in – and he has stared down the barrel at his rival Lord Voldemort.  We have a sense of the battle for the wizarding world Harry has been thrust into.

But this just makes Harry Potter another epic hero – which is fine and all, but he is also a teenager.  A whiny, snively, angry sulky teenager who has been through a lot, but is increasingly less generous with his friends – and convinced that he has unique powers and understanding of what has happened to him.  It is this spirit that permeates throughout Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, a thrilling novel which never relaxes its tension for one moment while advancing the themes from the earlier books.  But for all of its value as a thrilling adventure, it is a superb character study of a teenager grappling with his own issues as well as the issues facing all of Wizarding.

Per usual, we start with Harry’s return to Privet Drive – but this time, something is different.  How could it not be?  After Albus Dumbledore threw the gauntlet down so memorably in the final passages of the prior book, it is hard to think that Harry could just return without having all the chaos surrounding Voldemort’s return just not visit.  Indeed, when an unexpected Dementor encounter trips up Harry and Dudley one night – it leads to both a startling revelation about his neighbors as well as a charge for the improper use of magic.  This leads to Harry being whisked away to the hideaway of the Order of the Phoenix, an organization which had existed and has been revived, now that the Dark Lord is circling his own wagons.  Of course, we see the adults discussing matters without Harry or his friends – a fact which is increasingly not getting lost on Harry.  The resentment that is building comes through in typically teenaged outbursts.  Harry is mean to his friends, and angry that nobody is telling his what is going on.  After all, HE is the one who subdued Voldemort – who else is in a position to understand?

This happens a lot to Harry as he is trying to muck through his key fifth year at Hogwarts.  The people in the Order of the Phoenix are treating him like a kid by hiding stuff.  Dumbledore will hardly look at him – even when he shows up to bail out Harry at his Ministry of Magic trial.  The other kids at school did not get to see him battle Voldemort – they just have the word of Dumbledore that he is back, and the powerful Ministry of Magic is clearly concerned with letting that out.  Frankly, Harry’s tale strains credibility for a lot of the fellow students and their families.  Nobody understands him.  All this, and his key exams at school are coming at the same time, and of course Quidditch.

Indeed, Hogwarts starts really giving him problems, as the Ministry of Magic has started to infiltrate the school to keep a lid on the Voldemort stuff.  Among the changes they force on the school is the inclusion of Dolores Umbridge as the new Defense of Dark Arts teacher.  She prefers however, a theoretical underpinning and pooh poohing the practical need (since dark arts are a non-issue).  This of course, is insane, for anybody who has read this series at all.  Of course her insistence on this worldview and getting the students to toe the line gets her on the opposite side of Harry.  Harry’s first detention with Miss Umbridge might be the scariest scenes to date.

Umbridge herself is one of the best recent literary villains.  Committed to the Ministry of Magic’s view of things, and committed to Dumbledore’s ouster – her decrees and clashes with Harry and the rest of the students is legitimately frightening.  When she starts exerting more power over faculty, it gets even worse.  She makes my skin crawl just thinking about her as I type this.

That said, the book is not all gloom and doom.  There is some lightheartedness as Harry screws up his first dating encounters, and has his first kiss and whatnot.  Ron and Hermione’s sniping continue to amuse in the sort of way that almost makes it inevitable that they will find each other.  And then there is “big story” behind the rest of it.  On that level, this book delivers as much as Goblet as we get an encounter with the Death Eaters, and a prophecy involving Harry and Voldemort’s fates which while interesting, sort of ends up a MacGuffin at the end of it all.  In particular, the revelations about Sirius Black’s family connections and an unexpected encounter with Neville Longbottom were particularly powerful.

There is a ton to unpack in this book – it is not quite Goblet’s  equal in its impact, but is nearly as packed with plot and story and character development.  I am sure I will return to some of these, perhaps as the sixth book unfolds.  But more than anything, we get a sense of who Harry is in a deeply personal way – it is hard not to connect with him if you have had any sort of teenaged youthhood.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

There is one scene that will forever stay with me, and it was when the stakes really changed.  There are some major plot points I will tiptoe through here, so forgive me if I get a wee bit circumspect.  There is a delicious battle scene mind you, and the sort of one-on-one confrontation the first three books of the Harry Potter saga had build towards.  But this takes place a shade earlier, when the confrontation begins.  Harry Potter has achieved one of his greatest, and most impressive triumphs.  However, for many reasons – he decides to share his triumph with Cedric Diggory, fellow competitor and one of the students from another house.  But suddenly, as the victory was being anticipated, Rowling throws us out of the reverie – Harry and the other student end up transported elsewhere where almost instantly, the other student is killed.  

When I read the book (in 2 sittings, mostly on a Transatlantic flight), I could not figure out why the death of a peripheral character shook me so profoundly.  Indeed, the battle continued, Harry was able to stave off Voldemort (there are future books after all), but his mate Cedric Diggory lay there, dead.  He was just a wizard who played Quidditch, played the role of a handsome teenager and hell, I was rooting for Harry to win the prize.  But now he is gone, in a situation he had no way of anticipating, a pawn of something much larger.  What had started as a journey of personal awareness and rivalry with Harry now, in fact, really matters.  Hogwarts is in trouble, and the Wizarding community even moreso.

This is just a small part of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, one of the great works of fiction which will (and certainly ought to) certainly still matter when my own child is old enough to begin to take it on.  I had complained about Rowling’s previous attempt to expand the scale of the saga, where we were basically left with a “climax” which involved basically a bunch of people talking, but once you get this book, the entire story ties together.  This is not a rousing compliment to the previous work – you’d like these things to be free standing – but it adds to the richness of this book, a clear leap forward for the entire series, so much so that the first two books almost belong in a different genre.  

As always, we start with the goings on in Privet Drive with the Dursleys.  However, this time Rowling dispenses with Harry’s struggles fairly quickly as the Weasleys whisk him away to the Quidditch World Cup – tickets landed by Mr. Weasley due to his role with the Ministry of Magic, in a particularly hilarious encounter.  While there, things start to become very complicated, as the evening after the finale, there is a sudden appearance of a symbol significant to Voldemort’s return.  This casts a serious pall over the proceedings, as we know how scared the wizarding community is of the Dark Lord’s name.

Soon thereafter, the gang returns to Hogwarts for their fourth year – except this year it is decided that there would be another rendition of the Triwizard Tournament between Hogwarts and a couple of other Wizarding Schools.  (there are others??  You’d think Harry would transfer after all of the issues he has had to deal with).  Normally this event would be focused on seventh years, but somehow Harry is chosen.

The Triwizard Tournament is enough for a novel – at least a novel akin to the first two stories, but there is a LOT more here, and the tournament is really just an effective narrative engine.  Don’t get me wrong, the events themselves are all terrific scenes, particular one involving – well a talent that Harry didn’t actually have.  But Rowling has older readers here, and clearly senses it.  The readers can juggle a lot more, including a legitimate plot and subplot combination that is fully mature.  The Tournament works on its own, but we see the ball continue forward on all sorts of other themes:

  • Snape: Dumbledore’s loyalty to Snape has baffled Harry forever.  He seemed to be behind the plot against Harry in the first book, and he definitely loathes him.  Snape was also troubled very much by Harry’s father – Snape was certainly not one of the popular kids.  We see more on the relationship – especially where Snape’s Slytherin connection.  At this point we probably should not be doubting him.
  • Politics: One of the buried ideas in the books have been that while Harry has gone through a ton – aside from a few people, it is hard for others in the Wizarding community to believe what has happened.  After all, Voldemort is dead, right?  The Ministry of Magic has had the safety of the community as central to its image, so any idea that the Dark Lord is alive and well creates real problems.  We see newspapers spreading misinformation, head functionaries insisting “there is nothing to see here” and that “Dumbledore is an old codger”.  The final scenes in this story where Dumbledore and the head of the Ministry are staring each other down are powerful.
  • Racism: We heard the term Mudbloods as far back as the second book.  For many people, the idea of anything but pure Wizards represents inferiority.  Much of Draco Malfoy’s cruelty is rooted precisely in half-Muggles, half-Monsters.  Indeed, Voldemort’s own self loathing is central to much of what has driven him to this point.  Even in a clever subplot involving Hermione and the plight of the house-elves such as Dobby, the themes of just treating people better permeate throughout.
  • Adolescence: Sort of standing astride the larger ideas are some very personal ones.  Harry’s world is both growing more complex and shrinking.  Meanwhile, we see that he is growing more powerful as a Wizard, but every bit the scared, awkward teenager he should be, especially when he has to do the hardest thing he has ever done to date.  Women might not be the Dark Lord, but it doesn’t mean that they don’t intimidate a first timer.

But I still think of those amazing final scenes after the Tournament ends.  The sheer suddenness and quickness of Cedric Diggory’s death is as powerful a statement on death itself as anything else.  While Diggory was not really a major player (if you want to go there), one day he’s a 17 year old at the Tournament, and then seconds later dead.  There are vanquishings and magical accomplishments in the earlier stories, but to stare down the barrel at a cold blooded, normal, teenaged death is jarring.  Moreover, it was the death of an innocent – just collateral damage to this battle.  THIS is what shifts the canvas.  It’s not just a coming of age staredown with a kid and a villainous Wizard; this is a world being shattered, and people, whether they believe it or not, now truly having reason to be very afraid.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Askaban

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the least of the first three Harry Potter books, but indispensable all the same.  The first two books did a nice job giving us a sense of Hogwarts and Harry’s own world, as well as hinting at the complexities of Harry’s backstory.  What about his relationship with Snape?  What really happened that night when his parents died?  Who were his parents?  Why is Voldemort after Harry in particular?  Azkaban offers a lot of answers here – we learn a lot about Harry, but Rowling does it at the expense of storytelling.  What we end up with is a number of exciting scenes, and a lot of exposition – but the entire recipe does not quite precisely work.

But we’ll get to that in a little bit.  Where did we leave Harry?  But of course, we start with him back at the Dursleys.  As usual, things are not going particularly well.  We learn that there is an escaped prisoner Sirius Black on the loose – at least on Muggle television it seems – and Harry is having his usual difficult times.  Vernon and Petunia still loathe him and love their increasingly portly son Dudley.  Indeed, when Vernon’s sister shows up – she adds to the fun by talking about what a problem child Harry is.  Harry knows he can’t practice magic in Muggle world, but sometimes – things happen.  This one is particularly funny.  As Harry makes his own escape, he ends up on the Knight Bus, where Black turns up to be a very prominent figure in the Magic World also.  Sirius Black has escaped from Azkaban, the Wizard Prison where Hagrid was sent in the prior novel – and he is alleged to have committed a murder.

It’s a particularly big deal when a Wizard criminal is also being outed as a Muggle one – it’s a high profile case, and Harry is kept close by the Ministry of Magic.  Hogwarts has also been facing new security due to this threat – manned by Dementors, particularly nasty creatures who eat souls and who guard the prison. Indeed, Harry faints every time he sees them.  Back at Hogwarts, this makes things difficult for him, especially when Dementors are at Quidditch matches or on the Hogwarts express.

Meanwhile, at Hogwarts, Harry has another year to trudge through.  Ron and Hermoine are still by his side, though Hermoine’s pet cat is giving Ron’s old family rat Scabbard a good scare.  It definitely causes quite a bit of tension throughout.  Hermoine’s overachieving in class reaches another level – as her class load seems impossibly large this year.  Some of the same professors are still at work – Snape seems to hate Harry even more, if that was at all possible.  The new Dark Arts teacher though, Remus Lupin, is a prize – and actually gave the students some useful advice, as opposed to Gilderoy Lockhart from the prior book.

All of the Hogwarts stuff is pretty good here.  Hagrid as the Magical Creatures teacher is particularly sweet, and his idea of appropriate lessons is very funny.  I particularly liked the introduction of Professor Trelawney, the Divination professor.  It sounds like a bullshit field to me too, although the way the class is run, and her own ways of sounding dire are consistently hilarious – and more or less how I’d imagine a Divination class to be.

But of course, there has to be more to the story than lolling about Hogwarts.  We still have Black to deal with, and this is where the book starts to slag a bit.  I recognize this is a big step up in complexity compared to the first two books, but we get an AWFUL lot of talking here.  First, in a crucial scene at the wizard village of Hogsmeade, we get to hear the Ministry’s view of Sirius Black and his connection to Harry Potter (it’s not a spoiler!  There had to be one, no??!!)  It is interesting, crucial information (particularly once you read the next book – and you must) but we are really just forced to sit through someone else telling us something.

This though, gets much worse in the crucial climax to the story.  Let me tread lightly here on the facts.  Essentially, our heroic three – for whatever – reason, have been dragged into a secret location, and Sirius and Harry meet.  And then Sirius explains how he knows Harry relative to the version Harry had heard before.  Sirius knew Harry’s father – nay, was close friends with him.  Fair enough.  But then we get a very long winded explanation of the dynamic, the murder Sirius is suspected of, and the one that is actually happening.  We also get some mistaken identity, and – God help me – time travel.  What we get a lack of is any real high stakes conflict here for Harry.  Yeah he gets to save somebody, which is nice – but it doesn’t really move the Voldemort ball along, and the scene lacked the sheer excitement of his first two conflicts.  Also, aside from a brief flash of his own abilities, we don’t get a ton new about Harry’s battles or the themes of growing into one’s own which Rowling mined so well previously.

The book that Azkaban evokes more than any other to me in this manner is A Feast for Crows, the fourth of the George RR Martin books.  There is a lot of information that Rowling needed to get out of there, and trust me – it pays off very much in the next book – but there was not really a compelling novel here, not the way she tells the story.  It’s too bad.  This certainly was not bad enough to skip the rest of the series – but it definitely did hit the tastebuds the way the first two books did.

 

Taco Bamba

Considering the domestic direction my life has taken, I guess it makes sense that all I write about are sports and books and stuff on TV.  After all, who has the time to go to restaurants?  Of course, this is not 100% true – I have time to go to places, but the kid and diaper changing friendly restaurants are largely un-special.  And then, there is take-away, which we rely on increasingly.

It is through this quest for great take-away that I sing praise for the place around the corner from me, Taco Bamba.  Some will rhapsodize about District Taco, and certainly when I was living in Arlington, I loved El Charrito.  Moreover, just to be fair, El Charrito is still great on the dimensions of authenticity (along with their pupusas!), but living in the burbs now, I am too thrilled to have a quality place in the burbs.

Taco Bamba is a true blue Mexican style Taqueria, already sort of rare in a part of the country where you are much more likely to find Salvadorian or Peruvian.  The fridge is stocked with the Mexican Coca-Cola, and the tacos are wrapped in the double corn tortillas.  They have all of the blocking and tackling varieties, including an excellent chorizo, as well as a cactus taco the life partner can’t stop eating.  The core flavors are good and at $8 for 3, a good value.

But Taco Bamba does not stop there, as they also produce higher end “creative” tacos – including the best fish taco I’ve had.  This taco, called “The Black Pearl”, is a perfectly fried bit of cod with a slaw and a squid ink aioli.  As is the case with squid ink, it is weird optically to see it on a napkin, but the combination of the slaw and fish it is extremely refreshing.  You get the crispiness of all the elements, and the aioli provides some garlicky complexity without making anything too soggy.  Their pork belly taco has Asian touches with its slaw and seemingly hoisin based sauce.  They even have a flour taco with American cheese and ground beef (the Gringo), lest you think they lack a sense of humor.  The restaurant’s special other things – like Posole, the pork and hominy soup or grilled corn with cotija cheese – are excellent too.  The tacos are reasonably generous.  We can get a meal for two here for about 15 bucks combined easily, and given the space only having a dozen stools or so that meal is usually taken at home.  It is a genuine crutch for us when we cannot think of what we want – and a legitimately excellent, flavorful one.

College Football Rankings Experiment 2013 – Final Standings

(As always, we lay out the process here)

Championship Week is always funny in college football.  Only a few games, but all high impact on the final standings – and this year was no different.  Indeed, this time we had Florida State completing its coronation with another quality win, Michigan State and Baylor showing frankly that they are a lot better than perception.  Indeed, the day of Connor Cook’s life shattered Ohio State’s dream.  Now, we KNOW Auburn will make the National Title game to join Florida State.  Much of that is driven by human voters who are just moving teams up and down from preseason rankings.  We have had the chance to not worry about perception, or preseason ranks here.  We wanted to see how a systematic decision science process would choose the teams.  Here are the final results:

  1. (1) Florida State
  2. (2) Baylor
  3. (7) Auburn
  4. (6) Alabama
  5. (3) Ohio State
  6. (8) Michigan State
  7. (9) Fresno State
  8. (13) Stanford
  9. (10) Oregon
  10. (5) Northern Illinois
  11. (12) South Carolina
  12. (4) Oklahoma State
  13. (17) Louisville
  14. (16) Central Florida
  15. (21) Oklahoma
  16. (14) Missouri
  17. (18) Ball State
  18. (19) Clemson
  19. (11) Arizona State
  20. (–) Bowling Green
  21. (22) LSU
  22. (24) Wisconsin
  23. (25) UCLA
  24. (–) East Carolina
  25. (–) BYU

Basically it’s Florida State and a bunch of teams with legitimate claims.  Baylor at 2 is as sensible as the others.  Both Baylor and Auburn got manhandled in conference road games (Baylor against a much better opponent), and Baylor did not have the beneficiary of two miracles to win games.  Alabama, Ohio State have cases if you want to move out of the champion range, although this year there is no need to – Michigan State even would be an honorable choice for #2 if you want it.  So to the BCS:

  1. Florida State v Baylor – Ohio State made this uncomplicated by becoming a 1-loss team.  Baylor’s metrics have been strong all season, they won their conference and their loss was not as bad as Auburn’s.  I have no guilt here.
  2. Auburn, Stanford, Central Florida and Michigan State as the other 4
  3. From my perspective, Fresno State deserves a BCS bid.  As a practical matter, this is not going to be the case.
  4. Notre Dame is a non-issue this year.  However, Alabama is an at-large in the Top 4, so they get automatically into the BCS in this framework.
  5. This leaves either 2 or 3 more at-large bids.  I’d give Fresno a bid – but reality will not.  Ohio State, Oregon and either Fresno State or Oklahoma State get the remaining at-large bids.  Just to mirror the decision set of the BCS lords, I’ll go without Fresno for deliberations.
  6. Orange, Fiesta get the first cracks at non-tied teams.  Alabama is a natural for the Orange Bowl here while Oklahoma State to the Fiesta Bowl keeps the Big 12 tie alive.
  7. Stanford-Michigan State in Pasadena.  Period.
  8. So who does Alabama face?  The straight numbers say Ohio State.  This is an economically viable and really good matchup so why not?
  9. Sugar Bowl: Auburn is on one side, and clearly Central Florida is not the preferred option.  So, it comes down to Oregon, which is a 2010 title game rematch.  Hooray.
  10. Fiesta takes Central Florida, thus:
  • BCS Title: Florida State v Baylor
  • Rose: Michigan State v Stanford
  • Orange: Alabama v Ohio State
  • Sugar: Auburn v Oregon
  • Fiesta: Oklahoma State v Central Florida

Using the rankings to model is interesting too.  Florida State, Baylor, Auburn are fairly obvious semifinalists.  But Alabama vs Michigan State is interesting too.  How much do you weight the conference championship in a case where the performance disparity is significant?  Alabama is #4 in the raw, Michigan State is #6.  It does not feel far enough apart for me to not give the conference titlist a little extra love.  So amazingly, Alabama is shut out of the playoffs.

  • Sugar Bowl (Semifinal 1): Florida State v Michigan State
  • Rose Bowl (Semifinal 2): Baylor v Auburn
  • Orange Bowl: Clemson v Ohio State (Clemson’s ACC pedigree helps here)
  • Cotton Bowl: Alabama v Oklahoma State (we get the Big 12-SEC match which is the future for this bowl)
  • Fiesta Bowl: Stanford v Fresno State (Fresno gets in as the best of the rest here)
  • Chik-Fil-A Bowl: Michigan State v South Carolina (can’t believe I am shutting out Oregon here, but there you go)

College Football Rankings Experiment 2013 – Standings #11

(As always, we lay out the process here) You saw the Auburn game.  Championship Week has already kicked off.  Northern Illinois clearly won’t be joining us in the BCS, and Fresno State’s case is in peril with its loss.  In any case, projections below take that into account – so enjoy.  Rankings are through last week

  1. (1) Florida State
  2. (2) Baylor
  3. (3) Ohio State
  4. (5) Oklahoma State
  5. (6) Northern Illinois
  6. (4) Alabama
  7. (8) Auburn
  8. (10) Michigan State
  9. (7) Fresno State
  10. (9) Oregon
  11. (13) Arizona State
  12. (14) South Carolina
  13. (11) Stanford
  14. (12) Missouri
  15. (19) Cincinnati
  16. (18) Central Florida
  17. (21) Louisville
  18. (22) Ball State
  19. (16) Clemson
  20. (25) Marshall
  21. (23) Oklahoma
  22. (24) LSU
  23. (–) Duke
  24. (15) Wisconsin
  25. (–) UCLA

Bowl projections – right now rankings keep Fresno State there, although as a matter of realism, I doubt this holds up

  1. Florida State v Ohio State – the National Title Game
  2. Arizona State, Auburn, UCF and Oklahoma State round out the BCS league champs.  All automatic.
  3. Any non-AQ champ in the Top 12 would go here.  Fresno State
  4. Notre Dame not in Final 8 – no worries about them
  5. No other automatic at-larges
  6. This leaves 7 of the 10 spots filled – so 3 at-larges left.  This week they go to Baylor, Alabama and Michigan State.  Fresno State is tempting, but from a BCS perspective (especially considering last year’s bowl result) the other two schools win out.

So projecting bowls with this lot?

  • BCS Title Game: Florida State v Ohio State
  • Rose Bowl:  Arizona State v Michigan State
  • Orange Bowl: Alabama v Baylor
  • Sugar Bowl: Auburn v UCF
  • Fiesta Bowl: Oklahoma State v Fresno State

But next year, there won’t be a BCS to kick around, so what would we do then?  Using next year’s alignment – I use a combination of ranking, geographic preference and what would be good on TV:

  • Sugar Bowl (National Semifinal 1): Florida State v Oklahoma State
  • Rose Bowl (National Semifinal 2): Ohio State v Baylor
  • Orange Bowl:  Alabama v Clemson
  • Cotton Bowl: Auburn v Michigan State
  • Fiesta Bowl: Oregon v Fresno State
  • Chik-Fil-A Bowl:  South Carolina v Stanford

So near the end, stick with the elements.

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